Loving the Life You Have

I swear it happens weekly. I open my mouth and some clerk or new patient or person on the street asks me where I am from. I feel like a transplant from a foreign land.  Even though I left decades ago and have successfully eradicated the “ya’lls” and the “yonders” from my vernacular, my Southern upbringing comes through loud and clear. My move north did not erase my history. Although I try, hiding my background is impossible.My roots will not, cannot, be denied.

Here in the North, for obvious reasons, the South is not looked upon too kindly.   These arguments aside, my accent alone gives way to question, maybe even judgment, and I am left sitting in my shame. Am I stupid? Did I grow-up with backwater ideas hailing from the trailer park? Am I small-minded, racist, conservative and overly-religious? My impulse is to get busy trying to prove myself. “Don’t write me off!” my insides scream. See me. See past my inflection. Give me a chance. I can hang with you Yankee intellectuals. I am worldly. I am not a mindless Southern Belle. I can contribute value. I am good enough.

Ridiculous, I know. But it is my story. And some of the stereotypes are true. I grew up with guns in the house. My brother even shot one through the floor once. We ate our share of fried chicken and grits. One grandmother made amazing homemade biscuits that I still cannot duplicate. The other grandmother set a mean table and needed three black helpers – the gardener, the cook and the housekeeper – to manage her world. We said grace before meals and dressed for church every Sunday. The daily choice was sweet or unsweet iced tea, even for young children. We spend weekends canoeing or watching SEC football. And no woman worked outside the home. They (we) were considered marriage material, beautiful window dressing for our good looks, not our minds.

I think it was my heart that noticed first. From a young age, I was suffocating. It was death by disconnection. I wanted a bigger world that talked to me, stimulated me, expanded me. I felt alone and did not have the words or the know-how to identify my predicament, much less fix it. I was surrounded by superficial nicety and put together beauty, but my heart longed for authenticity. Will someone stand up and talk about what is really going on here? I could not do pretend. I assumed that something must be wrong with me that everyone else could masquerade and I just could not stomach it.

And then there was my intellect. To my parents’ credit, they educated me well, sending me to the best private schools available. Originally, I am sure that the Harpeth Hall School was founded as a finishing school for Southern ladies. A societal necessity. But, even the South could not remain too long in the dark. At some point, the school became a launching pad for well-to-do families to provide their daughters opportunity. I am grateful to this day that my parents had such foresight.

But even there, I was more backwoods than most. (I guess I didn’t fit in either to the plaid skirt, prep school world.)  I will never forget the middle school quiz bowl. The announcer read a series of vocabulary words to the competing panelists. The elected smarter girls on stage reeled off the definitions one by one, some of which I had never heard. And then the announcer said, “taxidermist.” The room grew silent. No one spoke. No one knew what that word meant. The announcer turned to the audience and asked if anyone knew what that word meant. I raised my then very shy hand. I knew what that word meant. Hell, we had a few on the family payroll that I knew by name.

Fast forward multiple decades. I have not lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line for a very long time. But when I get a chance to visit, there is a part of me, deep at the cellular level, that awakens and says “home.” Maybe it is the sound of the katydids or the sweet smell of freshly mowed green grass. My long ago emotions, tied to the place of my upbringing, rise with a vengeance and demand my sentimental attention.

Through the years, I have managed to willingly claim a part of the South in me. The art of setting an elegant table is important to me as is taking casseroles to my fallen-ill neighbors. There is something polite in my child’s  “yes ma’am” and “no sir” that just sounds better than a sheer “yeah.”  Dressing up a word to make it more kind goes a lot farther than aggression just because I can.  Thus, maybe my Southern training wasn’t all bad. Maybe there is something there I can redeem and even want to hold onto.

Undeniably, like it or not, it is my story. I often find myself saying, I am not sure I like the path I took to get here, but I like the me now. And, I would certainly not be the me now without having spent 18 years wading barefoot in the creek and watching my Dad chase cows in the backyard.

Our life is like a blank wall, waiting to be filled with a 12′ x 12′ mural.   Our experiences, stories, pain and joys are painted on there somewhere. We can try to draw over them or around them or make them into something else, but they cannot be expunged. We are the sum total of all our life’s encounters.  The good news is that our life’s artwork is not complete until our journey ends. We can always add more to our mural which can transform the entirety of the composition. We are a continuous work in process.

I don’t know about you but that works for me. It engenders hope. It fortifies self-compassion to fight off my shame. It allows me the ability, on a good day, to fully embrace the life I have now. I am reminded of that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song – “If You Can’t be With the One You Love, Love the One You’re With.” I may not have the life I wanted, the life I dreamt of, but I am going to learn to love the life I have.

So, pass the biscuits and pour the iced tea. I’m gonna dig in, into all of it. Every last bite.







Cleaning Closets

I am used to it by now.  Someone calls.  They want an appointment.  We meet.  I hear the tip, the tip of the iceberg, that moment that toppled them into seeking professional help.  I tell them who I am, what I can offer them and how I provide it.  They tell me that such sounds good, it is exactly what they are looking for.  We get started.  They settle into therapy.  And then, sure-fire, panic appears.  They tell me that they are not feeling better.  Or, in most cases, they are feeling worse.

By now, I am prepared for this experience.  I even expect it.

Out comes my invented metaphor …the hall closet.

I tell them how they are a mansion.  A grand old extravaganza with large columns and more square footage than they can ever want.  In that mansion is a storage closet filled with emotional junk.  All the stuff that is old and tired.  Used and expired. Somehow, for whatever reason, the pile in this collection has never been cleaned out.  Through the years, we have crammed more and more into the closet, hoping that the door will still close if slammed hard enough.  As long as the aged piles stay hidden away, life is good.  I am no worse for wear.  Or so I think.  We focus on the rest of our house.  Make sure it is spic-and-span.  Ready in a moment’s notice for unexpected company.

But the day comes when the assundry of pushed-aside clutter can no longer be ignored, at least not without a high cost to our emotional, relational and physical health. We have run out of storage space and the door remains ajar, no matter how hard we push.  A stench may begin to seep through our house. Like a relative that has outlasted their welcome, it won’t go away on its own accord.  It is time to clean out that closet.

Intensive psychotherapy, the kind that is designed for long-term, sustainable change, is such a process. We’ve got to pull out the closet’s contents and discover what is really there, what we consciously might have forgotten was there.  Temporarily, as we peruse the now large heap on the floor, it feels worse than it did when it was all squirreled away.  Look at this mess, we sigh.  We are burdened with feelings of disgust, grief, overwhelm and heaviness.  And, what do we do now?  How do we ever get this mishmash cleaned up?  Why did I pull it all out to begin with?  Damn. Can’t I just cram it back in and call it a day?

If we stay with the process, the sorting begins.  What needs to be thrown out?  What can be recycled or given to a new home?  What needs mending or cleaning or given a fresh new look?  After deciding, we organize the keepers before putting them back.  We then have access and efficiency to whatever emotional resources our day-to-day life might need going forward.

As an added bonus, we no longer dread the junk closet.  The one we knew needed our attention someday.  Having finally gotten around to this put-off project, we have freed up energy to devote to full living, to life in the moment.  We can walk down the hallway, past the closet, and breathe easy.  We now have entree to our whole house … nothing to hide .. nothing to be ashamed of.

What a worthwhile venture.  Consider it, if you have not already.  Your mansion of magnitude awaits you.